A Vacancy in the Neighborhood

Flowers in Mrs. H’s garden

I look out my kitchen window. I can see Mrs. H’s house. She died last November at the age of ninety-one. Yellow caution tape runs from the road, past the side of her house, and toward the back of her yard where her magnificent gardens, filled with daffodils and tulips and other flowers I can’t name, bloom every spring. The caution tape evokes the feeling of a crime scene, but it’s simply there to keep the people at the estate sale from trampling through the gardens. Cars park up and down her block and the next block and on my block. People line up outside her front door, waiting to enter her home, hoping for bargains at the estate sale. I think about Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and the scene with gleeful characters scavenging through the belongings of the recently dead Scrooge.

I’m not saying Mrs. H was like Scrooge, she wasn’t, or the people in line are gleeful, they’re not, but this is what I think about. I waver about whether or not I will go to the estate sale. Going into Mrs. H’s home — looking at her possessions, which under normal circumstances would have been in cupboards and closets and drawers — feels like an invasion of her privacy.

I’ve lived in this neighborhood for twenty-seven years. Mrs. H was here when I moved in, but I’ve never been inside her house. We were of different generations. But I liked her well enough and enjoyed our brief chats when she walked by my house, first with one Miniature Schnauzer then later on after that dog died, with another one.

Even though going to the estate sale feels like an invasion of her privacy, I’m curious about what her house looks like inside. It’s adorable from the outside — one of my favorites on the street. I might buy something as a keepsake.

I keep watch out my kitchen window, and when the line of people is gone, I grab my purse and walk to Mrs. H’s house. I don’t have to knock to enter, but I do have to take off my shoes.

The front door empties into the living room filled with used furniture. There is a three-person couch for $800, a small outdated stuffed chair and ottoman for $700, and a four-person couch for $900. So much for bargains.

I notice the picture hanging on Mrs. H’s wall has been straightened and marked with a $40 price tag. It’s from the 1980s, like something that hung in a middle-class hotel. For almost a year before Mrs. H died, the picture hung crooked on her wall. Every evening when I walked my dogs past her house, I wondered why she didn’t straighten it. Eventually, I came to believe the crooked picture meant something was wrong with her.

One afternoon, as I walked my dogs by Mrs. H’s house, I ran into her daughter. I asked how her mother was doing. She answered, “Not good.” Her mother was suffering from dementia. I told the daughter about the crooked picture on the wall, that it had convinced me something wasn’t right with her mother. After our conversation, I thought the daughter might straighten it, but she didn’t. The picture remained crooked for months, a signal flag of Mrs. H’s difficulties.

I wander through the house. Its rooms are small, but neat. Simply decorated but bland. Everything is clean. There isn’t much for sale in the house. I get the impression that Mrs. H didn’t like to clutter up her small home with lots of stuff. Objects are $10, $15, $20, $30, $50, $60, $90, and more. If this were a rummage sale, the same objects would be a fraction of the cost. I don’t buy anything, and I don’t stay long. I feel like an interloper. But once outside, I take pictures of some beautiful flowers in one of Mrs. H’s gardens.

Everything changes. Mrs. H is gone. Mr. H died eight years ago. The dishes and tools and clothes and knickknacks that made up their lives are being sold. Mrs. H’s gardens didn’t winter well, and the daffodils and tulips, usually plentiful and jovial, are sparse and lonely. Someone new will live in the house. Mrs. H’s daughter-in-law isn’t sure if the family will sell the home. Perhaps one of the family will live in the home. If they sell it, I hope someone with children will move into the house. When I first moved to this neighborhood, it was filled with children, including my own, and I miss the shouts and the laughter of children playing outside.

10 thoughts on “A Vacancy in the Neighborhood

  1. This. The shifting of neighborhoods, the loss of people we used to chat with on our walks, the homes emptied and sold. We wonder if the new people know how the previous owner fed birds and put up political signs we agreed with. We wonder if the new people will go the another way, set taps and put out poison of various sorts.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This piece brings to mind so many neighbors’ homes when I grew up. Always wondering what was inside, where they kept their best things, what type of dishes did they set the table with, and countless nods and conversations standing in the yards with said persons. And always, what will the next new neighbor bring?
    Thank you, Vicki.

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  3. There is a difference when shopping an estate sale of someone who died. Every home and possession has a backstory. Your view of entering private space and enjoying the gardens available for all says much about this woman’s past.

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  4. This was lovely and poignant. It said more than the words. Thank you.

    A neighbor of our passed away some years ago. She used a wheelchair, but that hardly slowed her down. She knew everybody and everything. (“Did you get many trick-or-treaters this year?”) I’d also never been inside her house. I only realized the silence when she was gone.

    I can empathize with the desire for neighbors with playing children. I’d throw in a barking dog or two.

    Liked by 1 person

      • The neighbors on the other side of us have two small children. She once casually apologized for their crying and their barking dogs. I told her, “Babies cry. Dogs bark. I hear them, but I don’t spend any time worrying about them. I’d worry if I didn’t hear them.”


  5. I have had similar thoughts about going to estate sales even though I don’t believe I’ve ever known the person. For that reason, I stick to rummage, yard and garage sales. I love that you took photos of her plants and I’m sure, in an earlier life, she’d be thrilled you did too!

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  6. That darn cycle of life, hope you get some kids to liven up the neighborhood. I had to laugh but really loved how at the danger of looking like a nosy neighbor, you told the daughter about the crooked picture on the wall 🤣.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was walking by Mrs. H’s house when her daughter pulled up. When I asked her how her mom was doing, she talked to me for quite a bit of time. I think she needed to tell her story to someone, and I’m a good listener. I told her that I’d been concerned about her mom, even though I saw her going in and out of the house with her dog because it wasn’t like Mrs. H to have anything out of place, like a crooked picture. I ran into the daughter a few more times before Mrs. H died, and each time the daughter would talk to me at length, and I would listen.


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